“I’m so proud of my mammy”
Long before he donned a wig and found success as the popular Mrs Brown, Brendan O’carroll found inspiration in the form of his trailblazing mother
He’s built a comedy empire worth millions, but Mrs. Brown’s Boys creator Brendan O’carroll reveals he owes everything to his trailblazing mother.
Maureen O’carroll did not live to see her son Brendan enjoy his success as star and creator of the wildly popular comedy series and live arena show Mrs. Brown’s Boys.
But if the Irish actor has anything to do with it, his mother’s remarkable (and little-known) political and social legacy will finally be given due credit. As he prepares to tour Australia early next year with his latest arena show The Love Of Mrs. Brown, the 62-year-old grows animated when he tells Stellar about the astonishing story that few know about his “mammy”.
Brendan O’carroll was the youngest of 11 children raised by cabinet-maker Gerard and Maureen, a one-time novice nun. During his youth, he says, “Ireland was [stuck in] the Middle Ages – and my mother helped change all that.”
And while he’s long denied she inspired his most famous character, in curly wig and glasses, Agnes Brown (building an empire worth an estimated $30 million on the way), O’carroll now acknowledges the “unholy trinity” at the heart of his success: himself, Agnes and the mother whose love and life proved so worthy.
THE LIFE OF the woman born Maureen Mchugh came with its own Hollywood twist. A year before her birth in 1913, her parents aborted their plans to set off on the SS Titanic’s maiden voyage and elope to the US, instead selling off their tickets just days before its ill-fated journey. Her mother and journalist father encouraged her to read and think critically, earning Maureen a scholarship to university around the time she met Gerard.
Accepting his marriage proposal put an end to her professional ambitions as a teacher; hitting a wall in the form of what was then known as Ireland’s “marriage bar”. Essentially, legislation at that time prohibited wedded women from holding a job in the civil service. When she married in 1936, her career effectively ended.
“She was let go,” O’carroll explains. “And she said, ‘ Well, I’m not having
that!’ So she got deeply involved with the union and was determined to get that law changed.”
From her tiny council house in Finglas, the woman widely known as “Little Mo” waged war against the social and economic issues she saw affecting the poor families around her. As she dug into her research, “she realised so many laws on the statutes were anti-women,” says O’carroll, who points to one law that gave husbands permission “to beat your wife provided the man didn’t use a stick longer than his forearm and thicker than his thumb”.
Maureen was eventually enlisted to run for the Irish Parliament in 1954; she later claimed victory – and made history – as the first female TD (MP) for the Irish Labour Party.
She would go on to legislate for cheaper groceries, erase use of the word “illegitimate” on birth certificates for those born out of wedlock and helped set up the Ban Gardai, which allowed women to join the police force. And she did all of this in only a short-lived, three-year stint in parliament.
When her husband died of asbestos-related cancer in 1962, Maureen used what little money she made from a political pension to buy two terrace houses and set up a women’s refuge for battered wives and homeless children. This, despite the fact her family were still living in their own cramped terrace, which still puzzles O’carroll. “I don’t even know where they put them all,” he says. “They must have been standing up in a wardrobe.”
But once his older siblings moved out, married or migrated, O’carroll remembers relishing the time he had his mother to himself. “It got to one point where it was just me and her,” he tells Stellar, “so I’d get the undivided attention of this genius of a woman. My older sisters would remember a woman they had heard on the radio, decrying the fact kids were coming out of school illiterate, but who wouldn’t be there to help them with their homework.”
There’s little doubt in O’carroll’s mind his mother gave him the confidence “to be anything I wanted to be,” he says, an attitude which earned him a reputation in his hometown as the “can-do kid”.
Even after her death in 1984, O’carroll believes his mother kept encouraging him to succeed. At one of the most troubled times in his life, after a failed project had left him financially ruined, he was desperate and on his third night without sleep. So, he says, he did what good Irish boys always do: knelt at his bedside and prayed. “I said, ‘Mum, I know you want me to find the answer to this myself but if there’s something you can do, just give me a fecking break.’”
That night, he says, she appeared in a dream, calling him on the telephone to say: “If you want it that bad that you’re prepared to get down on your knees for it, get off of your fecking knees and go do something about it.”
O’carroll, a stand-up comic- turned-writer, created the character of Mrs. Brown for an Irish radio station in the early 1990s. When the actress due to play the role failed to show up, ever resourceful, O’carroll ran with it – and 25 years later, he is still selling out arenas playing the character.
Last year Professor Niamh Reilly, who teaches political science and sociology at Maureen’s alma mater (the National University of Ireland, Galway), began researching the contribution she made to Ireland’s political history as part of a celebration of the university’s alumnae.
“She has emerged as a wonderful example of really confounding expectations and breaking the mould,” Reilly says of Maureen. “She was really quite extraordinary. There’s a whole book to be written, I think.”
For his part, O’carroll pays homage to her legacy every time he steps on the stage in front of an audience.
There have been two films based on her life and the show, 1999’s Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston, and 2014’s Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’movie. O’carroll’s sister Eilish, who plays Agnes Brown’s dotty neighbour Winnie Mcgoogan, now plans to adapt Maureen’s story once more for a proper biopic.
As for his own flirtation with politics, O’carroll admits he has considered running for parliament, but just doesn’t want the bother. “I always said I wouldn’t go into politics until I could afford to and then I got to the stage where I didn’t need the money and I didn’t need the politics in my life.”
For now, he’ll leave that to Agnes Brown. “If Mrs. Brown had a university education like Mum, she would be my mum,” he says. “There’s times, even now, that I’m onstage and say things and I go, ‘Jesus, that’s my mother. That’s so my mother.’ I think we all do that. [But] I’m so proud of my mammy, who made her life matter.” Mrs. Brown’s Boys Christmas Box Set, Mrs. Brown’s Really Big Box Set and Mrs. Brown’s Boys Specials are out on DVD on Wednesday.
“I’m so proud of my mammy, who made her life matter”
MRS O’CARROLL’S BOY Brendan O’carroll is touring Australia next year; (above left) as his alter ego Mrs. Brown; (below left) his mother Maureen.
MUM’S WORD (clockwise THE from above) The youngest of 11 children, O’carroll relished the time he had with his inspiring mum; winning the Best Comedy Award at the UK National Television Awards in January; his sister Eilish (at left) plays Mrs. Brown’s neighbour and friend, Winnie.